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Bob Boyd - Bao Tak Fai Tai

As the Disciple of Grandmaster Ip Tai Tak and founder of the International Snake Style Association (ISSA), Bob Boyd ( Bao Tak Fai Tai) is teaching the Snake Style tai chi system world wide. If you would like to know more about organizing a snake style tai chi workshop in your area, please contact him here.


Yang Style Tai Chi – Hollowing the Chest to Raise the Back  


During a recent seminar in Avignon, France, I was in the front passenger seat of a car taking me to the seminar when we were hit head-on by a drunk driver.  The seat belt saved my life, but my sternum was fractured by the shoulder strap.


During my tiger style days, this would have meant the end of practicing tai chi for up to two months because my old idea of “hollowing the chest to raise the back” meant pulling in my chest and dropping my shoulders. This would be excruciating with a broken sternum. However, I was able to continue my practice as soon as I left the hospital.


Why? Because the true physical act of “hollowing the chest” has nothing to do with collapsing the breastplate and sternum of the body. It is a move that involves engaging the muscles from the Dan Tien through the iliopsoas muscles up to the deep muscles of the thoracic spine. Many Yang style practitioners collapse their chest thinking they are obeying this most important Yang principle. This is a terrible misunderstanding of the principle and leads to bad posture, a weak and hunched back, and strain on the rotator cuffs of the shoulder joints.


Because of my accident, I was forced to keep my breastplate and sternum fixed as if it were cast like a broken arm or leg. The result – my “hollowing the chest and raising the back” got better and stronger as I recovered from my injury.  


Snake Style Tai Chi and Core Bodywork


The sweet feel of a “sore core.”


I grew up suffering from childhood asthma, never engaging in any athletics or exercise until I began studying karate when I was eighteen. Soon I grew stronger and healthier.

I used to enjoy the “day after karate practice” because of the good and “new” feeling of having sore muscles. This soreness was addictive and drove me to practice even harder the next day.

In my early thirties, after deciding to follow my karate teacher into tai chi, I began to lose that “day after” sore feeling.  I certainly enjoyed the relaxation and release of tension from tai chi practice, but the muscular effort used in practicing tai chi was focused solely on my legs. Eventually, the core muscles of my body grew stiff from bad postural concepts and “so called” dynamic push hands practice, and this led to injuries to my low back and shoulders.

After becoming Grandmaster Ip’s disciple in 2001, I began my training in snake style tai chi. The first requirement was to gain flexibility in the very muscles that had become stiff from my tiger style training!

Snake style practice has given me the gift of flexibility, suppleness and core strength as well as the return of that old feeling of sore muscles. Now, in my early sixties, I wake up the day after practice feeling the effects of a good core workout. My body, from my hips to my shoulders, feels like a coiled spring -- evidence of the core strength developed in the practice of snake style tai chi chuan. The feeling is as addictive as it was in my karate days, and it drives me to practice harder every day!


Yang Tai Chi Teachers and Negativity

 When I began my journey teaching the snake style of Yang family tai chi, I knew I would draw negative criticism from established tai chi teachers with narrow minds and big egos.

This negativity is based on fear of competition. Now that the snake style is being taught publically, there is a clear choice between the tiger style and the snake style for those who are seeking a deeper system of tai chi chuan. Tiger style teachers are free to criticize each other, but they shouldn’t criticize a system they have never been exposed to, and therefore cannot possibly understand.

Attacking my credibility is irrelevant because the snake style is about a tai chi system and not an individual. It stands on its own merits. Most ISSA (International Snake Style Association) teachers are former tiger style teachers who transitioned to the snake style because it had more to offer them. I welcome a dialogue with anyone who is considering the possibility of this transition for themselves.

The snake style is the original system of the Yang family and it delivers the fulfillment of the promise of tai chi. My mission is to teach snake style and spread it throughout the world. For those who are excited by the challenges and subsequent rewards of practicing the snake style – welcome aboard. To those who are satisfied with their tai chi and their teacher, more power to you. Snake style tai chi is greater than any individual. It is the product of the effort of six generations of the Yang family!


Is Yang style tai chi a “soft” and “internal” martial art?


I ‘m sure every Yang style practitioner would say “yes” to the above question.  But I categorically say “no.” Not in the case of the tiger style.

I believed I was doing a “soft” and “internal” style when I practiced and taught the Yang tiger style.  But in truth, I was using external force from my legs and hips to create movement while using my upper limbs as effortlessly as possible in an attempt to be soft.  However, in push hands, I would ultimately default to arm strength in order to defend myself.

Today, when I ask tai chi students for a clear explanation of the terms “soft” and “internal,” I usually get a quizzical look as if the question was rhetorical. This is because they accept this common answer: “internal” means that chi flows through their bodies and condenses into a powerful force, and “soft” refers to the use of this “chi” force to overcome brute force. Both are nice concepts but both lack any concrete methodology to explain their application in practical terms. Let me tell you what the Yang family actually meant by the terms internal and soft:

Internal – the use of internal muscles (core strength) to unify the lower body with the upper body creating a powerful “bow string” posture that is rooted at the foot and connected through the spine to the top of the head. This internal connection of muscle, tendon and fascia is flexed “like a muscle” by the action of “hollows the chest to raises the back.” This action creates a muscular suction at the bottom of the foot; a strong pulling in of the abdominal muscles below the naval; and an arching of the thoracic spine. This bio-mechanical movement brings chi from the ground through the Dan Tien to the upper spine where it is released to the hands.

Soft – This term refers to the relaxation of the bigger, external muscles to allow the internal muscles to work more efficiently. This harmony of big muscles relaxation and small muscle activation creates the “endorphin effect” that makes tai chi such a pleasure to practice! It is true interaction of Yin and Yang. Soft also refers to the removal of all muscular force around the shoulder and elbow joints so that energy stored in the back can flow to the hands. 


Tai Chi Push Hands

When I was given permission to learn the snake style of Yang family tai chi chuan, the first thing Master Ip demanded of me was to forget everything I had learned previously about tai chi (tiger style) – including my practice methods and habits. He wanted me to “empty my cup” so he could fill it with fresh tea.

Before becoming Master Ip’s Disciple, I had done years and years of push hands with my students. One style was to have my students push on my shoulder while I stood firmly in my tiger stance. No student could ever break my stance. In turn, I could never break the stance of my teacher.  Today some call this “dynamic pushing hands.” Master Ip would later say that this was a “waste of time.”

I also did a push hands style called ‘think style.” This was a contest with an opponent where each tried to upset the balance of the other. I wrestled this way with my students daily, and again – I never lost – except when I had a match with my teacher.

Since learning the snake style I have emptied my cup of both of these exercises.


Because I have learned that the true skill of tai chi self-defense lies within tai chi movement, and that the eight fundamentals of Yang tai chi (ward off, pull, press, push, pull down abruptly, thrash, shoulder stroke and elbow stroke) are based on movement. Only strikes and kicks are done from a fixed stance.

Why would anyone feel that the measure of their tai chi skills lies in fixed stance practice? Does anyone really think that they can find the “center” of a fast moving opponent by practicing a fixed stance push hands?

Master Ip taught me a push hands form based on lively steps. This is the basis for the push hands I now teach my students. The push hands that I used to do (and see everyone in tai chi doing these days) is really hard style practice disguised as tai chi chuan.